HLG Reviews: How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck
Publisher: Goodman Games
System: System Neutral
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Now here’s a book I’d been looking forward to for quite a while. In my short time writing for this site, I’ve made no secret of my esteem for Goodman Games, and that’s due in no small part to their adventure modules. Whether we’re talking about Dungeon Crawl Classics, Age of Cthulhu, or Fifth Edition Fantasy, they’re always packed with inventive new creatures, genre tropes turned on their ears, and just plain off the wall creativity that always shows me a brand new level of what fantasy RPGs can really do. Not to mention they’re a great example of how much potential often gets overlooked and unrealized, buried beneath a mountain of linear thinking and repeated ideas. If I want anyone’s advice on writing adventures, it’s theirs.
HTWAMTDS wasn’t what I thought it would be, not in a bad way, just different. It’s essentially a collection of essays written by some of the most experienced RPG writers in the business, each one ending with an “Encounter” that tries to provide an example of the advice in action. Many of the writers such as Michael Curtis and Brendan LaSalle will need no introduction if you’re familiar with the work Goodman Games offers, and though you won’t find Chris Perkins or Monte Cook here, names like Skip Williams and James M. Ward should prick your ears if you know the history of your hobby. As the word Modules in the title might tip you off, the absolute dead center bullseye of the target audience are aspiring authors interested in designing adventures for publication, but the vast majority is equally valuable for GM’s who just want advice for their home games.
Going in, I wasn’t quite sure how to review this. The value of advice is subjective by its very nature, especially in a field like Game Mastering where everyone formulates their own methods, philosophies, and opinions anyway. Right off the bat, stylistic differences were glaringly apparent even between the individual contributors, wafting from the pages like each chapter’s unique cologne. A lot of the essays are written with an obvious old school gaming mentality in mind, which again, won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with GG’s work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s quite a lot classic RPGs got right that was unfortunately lost with modern innovation, namely that classic RPGs seemed more focused on facilitating an interactive fantastical adventure, whereas more modern incarnations lean towards the concept of the game being a “game” first and foremost, with a heavier reliance on mechanics and power balance. However, there are some parts of the philosophy I’m not so keen on, such as the story-light approach left over from the White Box days when D&D’s default setting was a hole in the ground filled with orcs and goblins. I got into the hobby to tell interactive stories, and I need a strong narrative to maintain my interest. So when the venerable Jobe Bittman (writer of a litany of Dungeon Crawl Classics material and co-writer of Towers Two for Lamentations of the Flame Princess) extols the virtues of keeping an adventure light on context so the PCs can forge their own narrative out of the elements placed before them, I’m inclined to believe that I wouldn’t enjoy campaigning at his table for an extended length of time.
Some of the contributors give completely different advice for the same issue. Mike Breault (writer and editor at TSR from ‘84 to ‘89) will tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your adventure is to offer them lots of decisions. Speaking from experience, you need to be invested in the first place to care about decisions. On the rare occasion that I get to play a PC in a campaign, if my interest in the adventure starts to wane, (usually because it gets bogged down in repetitive, pointless combat encounters) I honestly couldn’t give a crap if we go left, right, or through the ogre’s butt, I’ll let those who do care make the call and keep a healing spell ready. Stephen Chenault, one half of the duo that created Troll Lord Games (most famous for Castles and Crusades) would suggest that the best way to keep players invested is to introduce conflict to give them something to do. Again, I refer you to pointless, repetitive encounters. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your campaign is to give them a reason to care. (Draw on backstories or character motivations, let them build a relationship with an NPC and then put them in peril, give them something to aspire to like a modicum of political power, there’s a million ways to do it but busy work isn’t one of them)
Regardless of stylistic decisions, however, there’s a LOT to love between these pages. It’s easy to pick out the advice that doesn’t work for me only because it stands out so much against a tapestry of extremely insightful and useful direction from veterans RPG writers. This review would be five times as long if I sat here to elucidate everything that does work, but to try to do as much justice to the product as I can, I’ll list a few highlights. Logical First Contact by Timothy Brown is without exaggeration the best advice I’ve seen for creating your own monsters, not because it helps you stat them out, but because it lays out a thought process for figuring out the ecology of these creatures, which in turn informs their unique abilities and functions. The chapter specifies “space aliens” but it works just as well for terrestrial creatures that spring from the Game Master’s imagination. Besides, if you think aliens don’t belong in a fantasy RPG you just aren’t embracing the creative possibilities of The Weird, my friend. Raison D’etre by Christopher Clark lays out one of the most important rules for maintaining player immersion, and Casey Christofferson’s Making A Villain brings forth one of the most fundamental truths that I wish more aspiring storytellers understood: Bad guys don’t see themselves as bad guys, they think their actions are justified. Also, if you are interested in creating modules for publication, Joseph Goodman’s insight into how professional publishers evaluate submissions will send the value of this book into the stratosphere.
As stated, each chapter ends with an “Encounter” that tries to translate the subject of the chapter into practical mechanics in action. Not every single one is usable, some of them don’t even have mechanics, but this is essentially a huge pile of content you can pillage for your home games. With a little elbow grease and some creativity, quite a few of them can be extended into full blown adventures. So now the book of advice from RPG veterans comes stapled to a pile of adventure seeds, monsters, and traps. It’s exceedingly difficult to not find something usable here.
So, do you need this book? Well, no, but what does it mean to need something in this hobby? You could play D&D forever with just the free Basic Rules, right? It would be far better to ask, will this book help you be a better Game Master? Will it help you create better adventures? Almost certainly. If that’s worth the price to you, you won’t be disappointed. Just remember to read with a discerning eye.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1409961192/how-to-write-adventure-modules-that-dont-suck
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.